The Couture Circle Jerk

February 4, 2014 • Fashion

Lately I’ve been receiving a lot of questions regarding my general thoughts on the state of haute couture, if it’s boring, and whether I think mainstream fashion brands like Prada should invest in this ancient (by fashion’s standards) craft. The idea of Miuccia Prada producing a couture line seems almost antithetical to the brand’s image. She developed the anti-luxury nylon backpack in the late 1980s, stating that “no one wanted the backpack (at first) because it didn’t scream luxury.” Also, in May 2013, she told T Magazine that “to sell is to prove that what you are doing makes sense. I’m completely against the idea that we do fashion for an elite.” With its low profit margin and stuffy, elite clientele, it doesn’t seem that haute couture is high on Prada’s agenda.

Backstage at Prada spring-summer 2014.

Backstage at Prada spring-summer 2014.

I know what you must be thinking: “Great, another long-winded rant about how couture is fashion’s ultimate lost cause.” And in some ways you’re right—I will be entering semi-rant mode about how couture is “a gilded coach from the past, with magnificently caparisoned white horses, but nothing inside and nowhere to go,” as British journalist Colin McDowell describes it. This discussion seems only pertinent with another season of couture recently behind us and another month of fashion collections just around the corner. But has couture become so swallowed up by fashion’s fast-spinning wheel that it is now routine, monotonous and—dare I say—boring? I think so. And yet, there are still so many designers who want access to fashion’s most exclusive and overrated club.

A few days ago, as I was roaming through the dark, dreary corners of The Fashion Spot, I came across an article about Sydney designer Bowie Wong being invited by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture to present his collection in Paris this July, making him the first Australian-based guest member. It was a strange coincidence that I discovered this piece of news on Australia Day (January 26th), a warm patriotic glow spreading through me as I scanned the article. However, as even our most scrupulous journalists have a habit of misapplying the term “haute couture,” which is legally protected under French law, to any and every designer who can sew a bit of tulle and lace together, I decided to do further research. As it turns out—and I must thank Patty Huntington of Frockwriter for doing all the heavy research—Wong’s initiation into the couture club is dubious at best. It doesn’t appear as though the Chambre Syndicale even knows he exists.

Australian designer Bowie Wong.

Australian designer Bowie Wong.

Still, even with all this confusion it’s important to note that haute couture remains a very big deal in 2014, so much so that any new members must be officially announced from a scroll parchment in the middle of Town Square.

But why? What is it about couture that still gets people so worked up?

The most common answer is that couture is apparently a dying art. When we think of couture we think of 1950s ball gowns, sweeping skirts, beautifully sculpted jackets and dizzying amounts of embroidery. We imagine seamstresses and tailors working endless hours to perfect the details, possibly losing their eyesight (and sanity) in the process. With the availability of cheap labour in China and machines to do the job, there’s the overwhelming paranoia that these organic skills will be lost or forgotten in the corridors of time.

Then there’s the fact that in a world where knowledge is power and power is so fleeting, we mere mortals still understand so little of what couture actually means. Yes, it’s made-to-measure, one-of-a-kind, one-off clothes with prices that extend into the hundreds of thousands. Add as many hyphens as you’d like. But what else? How long does it take to make the dresses? Who is buying this stuff? How much are they paying? Why bother when celebrities like Katy Perry can get a Valentino couture dress on speed-dial for the Grammys? And, most importantly: Is it profitable? Haute couture is Planet Fashion’s best-kept secret, and it’s only human nature to be so curious about something we don’t entirely understand.

I can talk about technique and craft and the magic of couture until I’m out of breath, but to keep pretending that couture still brings me the same excitement would be far more exhausting. I’m bored with it. And I don’t seem to be the only one. In his review of Jean Paul Gaultier’s recent couture collection, Alexander Fury, fashion writer from The Independent, comments: “By the time Dita Von Teese darted out in a corset with butterfly markings, you felt you were witnessing not the fluttering birth of new life but a trite, tired form of couture in its death throes. Where was the modernity? What was new?”

Jean Paul Gaultier and Dita Von Teese at his spring 2014 couture show.

Jean Paul Gaultier and Dita Von Teese at his spring 2014 couture show.

Precisely. What is new about couture? The term may have had real meaning in the 1950s, when the French government made stronger rules and regulations to (a) protect its designers from copycats, (b) ensure a high level of quality, and (c) give the French major bragging rights in the face of emerging competition in England and America. Since then, however, couture techniques have been used widely across the ready-to-wear market: London-based Mary Katrantzou collaborates with embroidery house Lesage (which is owned by Chanel) and Giambattista Valli seems to be selling his couture online. The incredible techniques that were once exclusive to couture are being shared (a huge thanks to Chanel for supporting these ateliers in Paraffection), which is a wonderful thing, but to continuing proclaiming that couture is strictly about incredible technique is becoming increasingly meaningless.

This time last year, Colin McDowell opined that haute couture is simply an “endogamous group of people, sated by the sense of their own importance, [who] have stopped thinking radically and have become complacent.” Has much changed in the last 12 months? Karl Lagerfeld presented a surprisingly dynamic collection this season, complete with luxury sneakers that took the House of Massaro 30 hours each to complete. And every season it seems like more and more fashion writers participate in a journalistic circle jerk, with Raf Simons centre stage, gushing about how this Belgian intellect brings an “element of reality” to the craft of couture.

Lanvin hasn't create couture in years and seems to be doing fine. The great technique is still evident.

Lanvin hasn’t created couture in years and seems to be doing fine. The great technique is still evident.

It really makes you wonder: If it’s so unreal and detached, why do people even bother with couture? Most couture runways are filled with lacy gowns and billowing evening dresses. How often do women, even socialites and the wives of oil tycoons, get a chance to wear this stuff? Not very often, I’m guessing. Why can’t couture techniques be incorporated into the far more interesting, far more viable, ready-to-wear market? You can make a great ready-to-wear dress with the same level of skill and technique, and it may actually have a decent chance of selling. A reactionary may argue that the more intense the embroidery, the more exorbitant the price—prices that can only be justified under the mythic guise of “haute couture.” But any designer who truly feels that they need to resort to excess in order to justify designer fashion has, in my opinion, failed miserably. In fact, a lot of designers could learn a thing or two about subtlety and moderation.

We don’t need a designer like Miuccia Prada doing couture; what we need is more designers taking a page—or a chapter—from Prada’s book of nervous, nerdy fashion ideas. Make great clothes, use incredible technique, and, for the love of God, do yourself a favour by making sure at least some of it sells. There’s nothing more depressing than seeing designers go broke making art (hey, Lacroix).

The end of couture is not the end of the world. Rather than enforcing archaic rules and obsessing over an empty phrase, we should be focusing on how to preserve these techniques. Contrary to popular belief, these techniques can thrive outside of Paris, given the right support. That’s the only part of this whole thing that has any real-life value and application. Make use of these organic talents. Testing the feasibility in the ready-to-wear market, a phenomenon otherwise known as “demi-couture,” seems to be the first step in truly reinventing couture in the 21st century.


  • I’m on the much dreaded bus manned by a daredevil of a bus driver so pardon my inaccuracies and typos. Haute couture has very a small pool of clients – say around 100? And they are increasingly being driven away thanks to couture shows littered with the likes of BB and fashion bloggers who prolly don’t know what they are doing there. Also, profit is an issue. Only chanel makes money from haute couture if not mistaken. The only way to revive HC is stop trying so hard but focus on preserving artisanship which is the real issue here. The thing is with the rise of cheap labor in third and fifth world countries, and the poor economic conditions, we prolly need to lose HC before people start regretting it. I love my craftsmanship but most buyers don’t see it that way. When they spend 100k on a gown they want the world to know where it’s from. Thus the vulgar symbols and monogrammes

  • Matthew

    Thanks for the article. I think it’s important to define what social strata you refer to when talking about economical accessibility. Prada has always seemed to be a ridiculous example as a practice that carries the sentiment of anti-luxury when their clothes retail for thousands of dollars. Accessibility of this price point is fairly restricted. Labels like Prada render RTW as a market that continually pushes the upper price bracket into a similarly rarefied community. It’s also hard to share McDowell’s implication that Haute Couture ever had radical direction, at least in the real sense of the word, as the their bloated capital depoliticises subversive potential. People bother with couture, as you suggest, because of its artisan craft and verbose beauty. This attention to craft, hand work and bespoke applications exist outside of HC and even outside your suggested alternatives of a RTW label adopting the bejewelled and high priced appeal of HC. I think of Susan Cianciolo’s work that, in the same vein of HC, deals with one-off pieces, hand worked with beautiful and intimate techniques. It feels you’re yearning for this craft to seep its way into new communities outside of the institution but hasn’t laborious hand work and artisan techniques always also existed outside of HC?

    • H.T

      I agree, to say that Prada is an accessible
      brand is completely undermined by the fact that she designs luxury
      clothes with luxury prices. But her clothes are beautifully subversive
      and incorporate elements of the ugly/kitsch that most designers look
      down their nose at. That’s where the idea of accessibility comes
      from–her keen eye, her sensitivity, her ability to make flames and
      muscle cars and monkeys and bananas somehow look so damn good. Couture
      designers are too concerned with perpetuating a Cinderella fantasy (when
      dresses are created by magic) that no longer exists, and it’s tiresome.
      The ideas just aren’t as compelling as they used to be.

      In regard to the prices: I think we can all agree that most luxury
      goods are extremely overpriced ($1500 Givenchy t-shirts, anyone?). Prada
      can almost justify it with the techniques and materials she uses, but
      there needs to be more reconciliaton, not just within Prada but the
      entire ready-to-wear market. That’s a much longer and more complex

      Indeed, this attention to craft, handiwork and bespoke application
      has existed outside of couture for a long time. However, if this
      enduring fascination with couture has shown me anything, it’s that a lot
      of designers are still eager to work with some of the best couture
      ateliers to give their designs a sense of, shall we say, legitimacy? I
      don’t think that allowing Lesage and Massaro and Goossens to enter or
      dissolve into RTW will threaten the existing labourers; if anything, I
      think it could strengthen and bring more attention to their work. Right
      now it seems like couture is one of the last pure symbols of French
      imperialism in the fashion industry. It needs to be shared.

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